Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Kings Of The Sky


Spend a day with John and Martha King and the hotly anticipated Cessna Skycatcher


Martha emerges from the hangar and straps herself into the Skycatcher. Its ingenious stick arrangement feels as though it’s connected to the floor, but the stick control actually pivots through the panel, giving the 162 lots of legroom and making it easy to get in and out. Martha has been busy going over the lines of dialogue for this segment. A production team produces the script, and then Martha “Martha-izes” it so it sounds natural and fits her delivery. In all, it takes some 60 people to produce a King Schools course.

The gaping gull-wing doors offer a wide-angle view of Martha’s preflight cockpit gyrations. I notice that nothing distracts her from the checklist tasks. Her practiced, calm precision comes from years of flying everything imaginable. In fact, John and Martha King are the only couple to hold certificates in every FAA category and class rating available.

Martha and the Skycatcher go out for an hour of flying/filming segments. We watch from the ground as she makes repeated takeoff, landing and taxi runs for the camera. Now and then, the tower uses nonstandard verbiage, necessitating a retake. The tower has no script. “Sometimes I have to ask them things in a certain way to coax the right phraseology out of them,” Martha explains. “Today, I needed them to give me a certain taxi instruction for the video.” She emerges tired but smiling after a long afternoon in the cockpit. She’s exacting about her flying. “Safety comes first,” she says. Though she has a determined focus about her, her warm smile softens her edge.

breezerEach course takes months and a team of people to complete. During their 35 years in the business, the Kings have sold nearly three million courses to pilots worldwide.
Hangar Flying
We finish the afternoon by relaxing in picnic chairs inside the large hangar. The Skycatcher cools down next to us as everyone unwinds after a long day of filming and flying. With all the accolades and awards she and John have earned over the decades, I’m curious about Martha’s proudest flying accomplishment. “Flying our Falcon 10 through Russia,” she answers thoughtfully. “That was just an incredible experience.” Another proud moment was being named one of the “100 Distinguished Aviation Heroes in the first century of flight” by the First Flight Centennial Commission at Kitty Hawk. There, she was in the company of Chuck Yeager, Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. “That was very moving,” she relates. “Quite an honor to be with those giants of aviation.”

Both answer that their greatest professional accomplishment is knowing that they’ve helped hundreds of thousands of pilots to fly. “We talk to pilots all the time, and they tell us we’ve helped them,” says John. “That’s incredibly rewarding. We never get tired of that.”

John tells me how Martha first approached aviation as something to conquer, a task to master. “But on her solo cross-country, she got delayed. She ended up coming back when it got dark,” says John. “We saw her approaching, and worried that she would be nervous because it was night and she was alone.” John tells us she made a perfect landing, rolled to a stop and stepped onto the wing. “That was an amazing experience,” declared a smiling Martha. John recalls the moment, “That was the instant I think she fell in love with flying.”

Next to us, the Skycatcher looks bright against the afternoon sun. The airplane is so well known that the Kings can’t take it to airports and just park it on the ramp; it’s like driving around with a movie star. So they fly the Skycatcher somewhat incognito. “If we had a choice of flying just about any GA airplane on a cross-country, we’d pick the Skycatcher,” declares John. Just then, a couple walks in from the ramp to view the Skycatcher. “Wow,” they both exclaim almost in unison, “it sure looks fun!” The Kings smile.


Where Aviation Videos Are Born
It’s refreshing when the founder of a successful company actually stops in front of the mission statement, reads it out loud and explains each part. That’s exactly what John King does as he emphasizes the company’s focus. “We care about each customer,” he says. “We call every single person who buys one of our courses, and ask, ‘Can we talk about your flying for a minute?’ We ask them how their training is going and how we can help.”

It takes 60 people to run the enterprise that King Schools has become; a far cry from the days when the Kings made videos from a spare room in their house. Like all professionals, the Kings make their videos look easy, even spontaneous. The truth is that each training course takes months to prepare and produce, and requires a team of people.

As we walk around the facility, it becomes obvious that aviation is the language spoken here. John tells us, “Just about everyone here is a pilot. We all understand what goes into earning a certificate.” Passing photos of management staff, we notice that nearly all of them are in or near an airplane; many are CFIs. John continues, “Aviators are extraordinary people. They’re driven and they have accomplished the difficult task of becoming a pilot. We treat them with the respect they deserve.”

The tech-heavy production facilities stand in contrast to the “homey” atmosphere of the rest of the place. In darkened offices, the creative and young staff members manipulate 3-D renderings of the Skycatcher used in the course they’re producing. Computers do everything from video and sound editing to tracking customer-service calls. A proprietary software application allows producers to call up any piece of footage in the vast library. If, for example, a course calls for a rotating beacon clip, the editor simply types “rotating beacon” into a search program, and the exact location of the footage is found, and it’s loaded into the editing bay.

The video production studio is impressive, with its giant chroma-key blue wall allowing the “weatherman effect” of showing John or Martha pointing to anything from a giant sectional chart to an instrument panel in the final video. Slide-out library shelves contain thousands of hours of footage accumulated over 30 years of course production. Raw takes are captured on a laptop in the field and pre-edited for continuity. The footage then goes to Avid video-editing software for final production. The entire operation is complex and fascinating to watch.

The completed course seen by the consumer is a combination of tedious shot planning, intensive flying, script writing, careful editing and the talents of many individuals. All of it, of course, delivered by the amiable and familiar faces of John and Martha King. Once a course is complete, the digital version goes to a quality-assurance team that tests it for software bugs, operability and errors. If the course passes QA, it goes to marketing, where promotional materials and graphics are created. King Schools does its own CD/DVD replication, so there’s always a large inventory of courses ready to ship.

The entire facility is punctuated by airplanes. A large model of a yellow Piper Cub hovers above us as we climb the stairs to John and Martha’s offices. In one room, every award the Kings have earned is on display. It’s not an ostentatious “altar,” but instead, a humble testament to the King’s love of aviation. John’s office is filled with coloring-book drawings made by kids, cherished flying mementos and certificates of every kind. Martha’s office is more austere, but furnished with the objects of a lifetime spent in the air.

The employees are cheerful and vibrant. Each department is a buzz of activity even late on a Friday afternoon. Overall, our look into the inner workings of John and Martha King reveals one final truth: The Kings are the genuine article—individuals who care about aviation and are making a living doing what they clearly love to do. Visit www.kingschools.com.
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The Kings produce their courses in their tech-heavy facilities, which include a video production studio and a library of footage.





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